First sale of an ebook I helped to publish

Recently I was helping a friend to publish the ebook version of his paper book, called How to Start a Business in Taiwan. About 50% the reason was that I like the book and hoped to get into more people’s hands, and 50% I wanted to see what is it like getting an ebook out the door and bought by people.

Just a while ago, it had its first sale (hopefully the first of many:). *champagne!*

How to Start a Business in Taiwan on Kindle
How to Start a Business in Taiwan on Kindle

I guess it is a very humbling experience that it took some 5 days of promotion effort to make that sale. That is even before I count how much time I have spent converting the Word doc into Markdown, and tweak the looks. The technical details to that I have written up in a guest blog post on the books website.

The marketing side is still under development, and the numbers are too low to draw a lot of conclusions from. The most surprising thing to me is how many people actually click the “buy this book” link and then they don’t follow through. Then also the half a dozen people who I followed up on earlier discussion to tell them about the ebook version, they say “ah, it’s awesome, I’ll go get it, I’ve been waiting for it” – then nothing happens.

Of course, there can be a lot of reasons for this, here are some of my guesses:

  • The website UX does not work well for them (ie. the are put off by the process)
  • People don’t know/like Leanpub
  • People are lazy
  • The price is too high
  • The sales copy is bad, so people don’t think a business book can worth that much for them (ie. price is perceived to be too high)
  • Spreading the word at the wrong places, thus wrong audience

… and probably a hundred other reason that I wouldn’t think of – or 171, since the book’s page had that many unique visitors in the last few days who left empty handed. I wonder what would be a natural next step to improve on this conversion rate.

It was a very fun thing to do, though, and got me psyched up to get my two idea-stage books going. And about ebook publishing in general, will definitely try to get more people onboard who have writing tendencies.

Also, this invaluable learning, as I’m setting up my startup now, a good reminder that people will not easily/often buy into my “awesome” idea, will have to work cleverer on that. Rejection therapy in its earnest.

(Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the book,  ie. I won’t get any of the sales, which makes things even nicer. I received one original paper copy last spring to review and edit.)

Academia is failing but not for everyone

Recently I have some mounting problems and stress at work, and while it would be easy to write it off as unfortunate circumstances, I felt like I need to dig into the causes much more to understand and try to fix them. It seems that it’s not just me having problems, my entire “industry”, the Academia has some fundamental difficulties. Can hardly say things about other fiends, but I have some overview of the atomic physics research done around the world, and nothing indicates that the issues are confined to physics alone. These are the problems I try to explore here.

I’m a physicist, working still as such, in my 5th year as a post-doctoral researcher (this is my second post-doc position). Altogether I think I am in physics for about 14 years now (or 20 if we count the high school where I was already conquered by it, just wasn’t quite aware of it yet).

Usual lab scene
In the lab

At my lab I felt there are some things that could be done better, to have a better group and research quality. I tried to bring some ideas from my old lab, from the startup world, from computer science, and my ideas what research should be like. Most of those changes were shot down, and many of the changes experienced became very frustrating, I felt like I’m on the wrong track.

Recently I got to read Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, and while it is aimed mostly at the IT industry, plenty of things are completely general. It was one of those reads that I was on the verge of tears in the end, because recognized so many things that went wrong in my environment.

One of the most important thing I felt was that our lab should be a team, a consciously cultivated team to really achieve its potential. The upper level always indicated that they took the fact that we work in the same lab as a sign that we already have a team, and that’s just one of the problems.

From the book it feels that the entire success or failure of projects mostly depends on the people and their connection with each other. Looking at the Academia, it feels like almost everything is set against building a great team. Not consciously, many people have lofty goals of efficiency, productivity, and similar things, but they go around naively to achieve those, and in the same time they destroy the resources that would create efficiency and productivity and creativity.

Looking at Peopleware’s Chapter 20 about Teamicide, they list a number of things that inhibit team formation or crush working teams:

  • defensive management
  • bureaucracy
  • physical separation
  • fragmentation of people’s time
  • quality reduction of the product
  • phony deadlines
  • clique control

I have experienced pretty much all of this in the labs here. Defensive management, people cannot be trusted to make the right decisions, because it reflects bad on you, so you have to make the choices for them and push it through, generally thinking that the people you got for the job are actually incapable of doing it. Bureaucratic, have plenty of stories about that, everyone has, even worse in Taiwan than general. Physical separation is less of an issue here, we are all in the same office. Fragmentation of people’s time, even when working on apparently “priority project that you need to drop everything else until it’s done”, it’s still “hope in the same time you can help out with X & Y”. Quality reduction, this is the worst one for people who believe in their abilities, having to work on something that I know it would be worse by far than other solutions I could bring, but it’s squarely ruled out, and now I’m feeling I’m spending my time building essentially waste. Phony deadlines, there are plenty of them, because people think that setting a deadline will make people work harder, which is missing the point – the hardest workers are those who are not pressured and have been given worthwhile goals”. Clique control, stopping efforts that would mainly be about knowing each other, effortless communication, and feeling that we work “together” instead of “in the same space”.

In later chapters they also point out a few more parts. High turnover poisons everything. Management don’t invest in training, people are not invested in their work, it’s just something “temporary”, why to give it all the effort (consciously or subconsciously)? Academia is almost designed for high turnover. Masters students for 6 months to 2 years max. PhD students from 3-8 years (though the long time is more problematic in terms of exploitation), postdocs from 1-2 years, and you are expected to move on and move up. Become a professor “somewhere else”, and start your own high turnover lab. The whole thing is quite often just milking the current place for results, or milking the new workers for their energy until they leave, because they are known to be leaving soon.

This also gives rise to thinking of people as building blocks. How often it is heard that “I need more masters students to do this project”, or “you should hire a post-doc for that”. Not ability, but function.

There’s often very little training about generally useful things, because of the high turnover is so etched into people’s mind: if my student will leave soon anyways, why teach him, or why teach the group in general something that is not immediately useful for their work? Why waste time with that?

There are lot of other problems as well, which mainly comes from how people get their jobs. To run a research group and become a professor, one needs to have: academic skills, teaching skills, management skills.

The first one people demonstrate through papers, passing exams and so on, so usually they have indeed good skills (don’t want to dispute that). The other two skills are on the other hand never tested, and just taken for granted, taken as the “easy” part. On the contrary, most people who think they can manage people (me included), are naive and make a lot of mistakes, even be completely counterproductive. Many professors are terrible teachers and managers, while they think they are doing okay or even great, so they don’t have to examine their level, nor improve on it.

Because of these things, that are so ingrained into the Academia, I’m even surprised that there’s so much success as there is. I would argue, many times the success is temporary and because of people’s skills to persevere against the odds. In some subset, actually, things fall into place. In my previous research group at Oxford, things were like that: professors let students to experiment and try things even if they don’t agree or see the point at the time (within limits, of course), people stayed on after their PhD, or spent their masters there as well, so much lower turnover, they took the bureaucracy out of the picture so if I needed something I just had it, no overtime because everyone knew that people need a life (and dinner at college starts at 5:30, so got to leave before that), and natural team building, like the tradition of whole departmental coffee (morning) & tea break (afternoon). We talked about everything, got to know each other, exchanged ideas, never got stuck in our work. And everyone was happy. I think I got spoiled by that, and took such environment for granted.

Of course, most of the things I mention here are not new nor original observation. To understand the situation, I started to read some books that supposed to guide new professors, for example New Faculty: A Practical Guide For Academic Beginners. I was wildly agreeing with the picture they paint of the problems in the preface, and starting to see some of the things a little better, while it still feels as if it falls short: most people trying to fix the problems by better assimilating themselves into the existing community, instead of shaking up the way “things are done here”.

That’s not necessarily bad, as another book I got recommended, the Orbiting the Giant Hairball showed me. There are a lot of resources that even a troublesome environment can provide. Still, how much one’s energy should be invested into fighting the system, and how much into the things we want to do to change the world?

Crossover Labs

Looking at the whole situation, my last 5 years were good lesson in life, while they left me almost nothing to go ahead in Academia. Joined labs that were stuck, or still building up, so I learned a lot, but haven’t got anything published, which is almost the single thing they need in the Taiwanese system to enter the professor level. Also, as I mentioned, most of the problems seems to be by design, so it feels I can do relatively little from the inside, if I want to change things. And I really do want.

I don’t want to leave physics behind either, research is what I’d like to do.

Instead, let’s think of something crazy: there were really successful non-academic research laboratories, let’s take Bell Labs. Unfortunately they have stopped fundamental physics research, but what if that tradition would be revived? If Bell Labs needed a powerful mother company to run it, how would we do a similar thing “21st Century Style”? Can we get some inspiration by non-conventional research and technology, learn from the old Bell, from SpaceX, from the HP garage, from the MIT Media Lab, from firms like IDEO, from Formula 1 teams, from Japanese innovation at Honda/Toyota/others, from IBM, from Sparkfun? These are all a bit wild examples, while I believe all of them have some insight that will or have changed me for the better.

Can I find a place where I can test my theories of research, how the 20% time would work in a lab; finish side projects that are right now dissuaded and covered up with just throwing grant money on it; see how people would probe the universe without the pressure to publish or perish; when people can change fields and become useful in research in a way they find fitting as well; when learning and training are priorities; when the quality of results is not been sacrificed…

I kinda think that I could do this in one obvious, but very scary way: I’d have to start it myself.

Thus it seems the path forward is taking my time at the current position till the contract runs out at the end of this year. Learn as much as I can. Do things as well as I can. Than based on all those experience, found a new laboratory, let’s give it a working title of Crossover Labs, and see what can be done on a shoestring.

Set up a laboratory that puts research first, based on the people. Make it so that it can fund itself from its byproducts in good Cambridge style where successful research is spin off into companies. Let’s have a place which doesn’t have to push people to do things, because they want to do, just get out of the way of them kicking ass. How to do this will need a lot more thinking and will definitely write about it more.

It is easier to say than to do, so if this vision is something that resonates with you as well, then let me know, that would be already helpful!

And I’m a bit sad that I got to the stage of “calling in well”, but it feels it has to be done:

Chances are you’ve heard of people calling in sick. You may have called in sick a few times yourself. But have you ever thought of calling in well?

It’d go like this: You’d get the boss on the line and say, “Listen, I’ve been sick ever since I started working here, but today I’m well and I won’t be in anymore.”

– Tim Robbins: Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (via Peopleware)

 Thanks David and Nathan for feedback before the publication of this post.

A different smart dressing up

I was out with a few friends the other day, they were forming a team to go to StartupWeekend Taiwan Hardware next month. I have been to one or two previous StartupWeeekends and they are good fun. Haven’t made up my mind about the hardware one, but since they asked me could they prepare for it, since it’s their first experience, I did try to gather some advice. Not sure how better they are off with it, but I hope at least a little. Looking at the previous events, a little bit of experience and knowledge can put people way ahead, because Taiwan is just learning startups, every experience is golden.

Later, though I started to think what I have told them. One particular advice I had to examine: don’t start with a tech that you find interesting, start with a story instead and choose your tech for that.

Now I’m not that sure that this is a good advice for every occasion, especially because I was brainstorming about one particular tech that really excites me, and if I was right earlier, then I’m wrong now. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt, that there can be a case (especially for StartupWeekends) for starting with a tech, even if it is probably the harder way to get something awesome out of the process. Still, given that limitations make one more creative, it worth doing at least some proper brainstorming about it.

Lilypad Arduino

The tech I was thinking about that time was the Lilypad Arduino. I haven’t got one (it’s sitting in my Sparkfun basket, ready to be ordered), but really want to make a project using it.

Lilypad Arduino Ebroidery
Lilypad Arduino Ebroidery by Bekathwia (click picture for Flickr link)

The Lilypad Arduino is a microcontroller (a very tiny computer) that you can stitch (using conductive thread),  and people most often use it for wearable computing / smart clothes. It has a lot of periferials, could use it with LEDs, accelerometers, buzzers, buttons, light sensors, temperature sensors, wireless communication, vibration motors, and whatnot… Really the imagination is the limit.

So now the question is, what kind of projects I could come up with that could use this. In the last few days of brainstorming (and now writing this), I came up with a couple of opportunities, not sure if any of them has been done. Not sure about the quality either.

Project ideas

Smart bag: figure out how to make some simple/small way of communicating with a little sensor that can be attached to items that one does want to always bring along: keys, wallet, phone…. The bag would sense it if they are out of its range and warn the user. Never leave stuff behind at home or at a cafe.

Visual turn-by-turn navigation for cycles: use a smartphone to get navigation directions to where you want to go with your bicycle or motorcycle. A jacket is outfitted with lights on both arm, and would have a Lilypad to communicate with the smartphone, signaling which way to turn and when.

Movement direction clothes:  smart clothes that would detect the position and posture of the person wearing them, and use light or vibration to signal what movement is the next one. Could maybe correct choreography or teach karate katas.

Communicating clothes: this could be done in multiple ways, wireless, infrared (like the TV remote control, just two way), consciously controlled or in the background. Ultimate spy clothes, send messages between people in the crowd without them actually doing anything. Could local business send out signals that are received the clothes could prompt you with a deal or order ahead your favorite if you are a regular (though, this can really easily be very spammy). Also, the different units can synchronize with each other – cue super visual flashmob.

Smart bedding: what if your bed could monitor your sleep and  wake you up when the morning comes? Bit like Wakemate, but for the bed.

People tracking: build into work clothes for a factory and can log in and out people just by sensing them. Make it part of the ticket in an amusement park, and can see which rides are too popular, can communicate back to advise about waiting time and suggest other ways to pass the time. Finding people in a crowded place in emergency, see if anyone’s left behind. Though these can be very 1984 if done badly….

Health sensing: monitor vital body functions for people who are somehow at risk: older people, partying in town (drink responsively), doing sports…. Warn them when some critical situation is predicted.

Style guide: clothes having smart tags with “style” and “colour” and “pattern”, and either all of them collectively, or a central piece of clothing would check whether these thing you wear do match with each other. Could also make recommendations what to wear. “I have this trousers, shoes, and so on – which shirt should I wear to that?” – press a button, the right choice lights up or vibrates in the closet.

Well, that’s for now. Most of these, I realize, are quite a bit tentative, many of them seem to miss some key ingredient, or have a (technical) problem to solve before it would work. Which one would I bring to a StartupWeekend if I’d go, which one is ready to be made and could be made in 54 hours? Tough one…

Found anything interesting here, or have some more ideas? I’d love to hear them, let me know in the comments!

No dream too big, or Startup Weekend Taipei 2

Despite that I haven’t started myself any project yet, I’m a big fan of startup events. Startupbus, Entrepreneurship Challenge, Startup Weekend Taipei, they were all really amazing. Because of this, normally I wouldn’t have thought twice about signing up for Startup Weekend 2. Too bad, that it wasn’t normal situation, last weekend it was in the same time as Ignite Taipei #4, which I was co-organizing (and speaking in Chinese, oh the horror!), and wasn’t sure if I can do the two things in the same time. My friend and team member from last time, Pandey, was pushing me quite a bit, and couldn’t show fear or uncertainty – signed up anyway. Thought I will figure out what to do once we get there. As with many things in life, every issue worked out, probably even better than I could have planned, and I had a great (no matter how busy) weekend.

Beginning

It started on Friday, we all been checked in to Taipei 101, through tight security, changing elevators and lots of access cards to the 77th floor to Google Taiwan. It’s a nice place, and a view to kill for, though I wonder if I could work there for a long time.

As at other such events, it started with snacks, exchanging of business cards, trying to gauge each other, who would be a good team mate, what to expect. There were some presentations, introduction, t-shirts and badges of course.

StartupWeekend Taipei 2 badge
Badge for StartupWeekend

After about 2 hours the time came for pitching. From the 60 participants I think at least 20, maybe even more were sharing their ideas. The two language (English and Chinese) made it quite rough to sometimes understand what’s going on, though the 30/90 second time limit for single/dual language pitches is pretty tight as well.

I usually decide by following my intuition, and for the first 10 or so, I haven’t heard anything that ticked my interest really. Then there was one guy who was pitching a subscription based wine discovery service (something like sending people each month some new selection, with a guide, and help them understand those better while discovering new tastes). I thought for a moment of Cerealize (that took home 1st place at this year’s StartupBus), Candy Japan (that just looks such a simple and brilliant idea, and seems to work extremely well), ShoeDazzle (subscription clothes)…… (Semi)-custom food and such service sounds just such a brilliant idea, and wine is very well suited for that. Also, recently I had more exposure to wine and wine tasting, just wanted to use this myself and would know plenty of other people who would too.

I got to say, I pretty much stopped listening to all the other pitches, already been planning this, because I felt this would so easily win the competition – and turning profit by Sunday. Went and talked to the guy, and at the idea voting stage (where people could select the most interesting pitches, so the 11 most voted one will be allowed to build a team) I was canvasing for that anyway. Should have had some feeling, when the idea guy was saying that “good that you are interested, but it’s not sure you can be on the team” – sure, why not, no problem.

In the end the idea was selected, team started to build and we had 7 people altogether. I was really psyched. Since due to Taipei 101 regulations we had to get out of the building in 1 hour, got to work right away. Got the team members emails together, set up organization doc, the others were working on the name (Advintage), once they had one they liked the Facebook page was already set up, sent email to someone I know to know lots of wine-tasting people so we could get good info about what are the good ones to choose and maybe help to write the promotion material. Seen a couple of mentors idling around, and went to talk to them a little before they they kicked us out – running the idea with them, get some feedback, get pretty much a first customer, very interesting info and some thoughts I haven’t considered before.

5 minutes before we had to get out the building, I got back to the team and started to update the idea guy:

“Hey, talked to the mentors and just a quick summary, they said (this and that)”.

“Ah, wait. Wait. Greg, we don’t have much synergy here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“While everyone was working on the things, you didn’t help just went and talked to other people before asking us that we should do that.”

“Come on, we have very short time, we had to talk to them to get feedback. You don’t need me to choose a name ….”

“I’m sorry. We don’t have much synergy here. I don’t want you on the team.”

“Okay, I understand.”

So this is the story of me being fired for the first time. It’s interesting feeling, quite illuminating as well, I haven’t felt a lot of feelings like that before. So 5 minutes after I talked to the mentors, run into them again, and when they told me a couple of things, my only answer could be – sorry, I’m not on that team anymore. “What? They fired you?” “What, they fired him, why?” “Because he did something without asking permission.” “You are probably better off.”

Thus instead of going home to work on the project more, I carried on with the preparation for Ignite the next day. Oh, I needed that.

Drimmit

In the evening I was thinking what other team to join – since I basically didn’t hear anyone else’s pitch, but there was Pandey and his group where I knew a couple of them, maybe will join that team if they want me. For a short while I was thinking of getting the teams try to woo me, but that was just silly. I realized that I was doing the “I’m here to win not to make friends” routine that I previously laughed a lot at, so instead just followed my heart and went with the team where I wanted to know the people more.

And how well that was – I learned a lot of interesting things with them that I wouldn’t have otherwise. So here it is, Drimmit:

The Drimmit team at StartupWeekend Taipei 2
Meet the Drimmit team

It’s more or less a site to collaboratively help you achieve your dreams, give advice to each other, and find and manage milestones along the way to give you a clearer path and higher probablity of succes.

It was weird not to be the tech lead, but good to let some things go. Instead of that I was trying to take care of the front-end, while half the team was working on the model and product pitch for the finals.

So, some lessons learned along the way:

  • We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the model, everything had some problem, nothing was completely logical. Pretty much more than a day went buy, where we had ideas how things would look, what’s the flow, but then had to scrap that. One cannot really develop like that.
  • I overestimated my front-end skills, though it’s usually quite tough to turn a Photoshop mock-up into a working site. Also had to get used to the terminology that when someone asked: “Do we have this page” and the team replied “It’s done!” it meant there’s a picture of it, not at all that it works.
  • For a while I was annoyed by this, but it also gave the spark: for the pitch we don’t have to code down everything, just make a show-and-click: things look like they work, but the functionality doesn’t have to be created. That means we could just scrap (or rather: abandon) the work so far (that’s about Sunday noon, for 5pm start of the finals) and concentrate on looking good. This gave us a demo better than others
  • Learned about coding some more, though I haven’t had to do much this time. One lesson is to practice a lot beforehand. Another is to prepare some tools to make development easier. And of course: do whatever it takes.
  • Because I didn’t do much and I was too cocky in the beginning, I hereby revoke my “hacker” badge until the next time I build something. No problem, I have just the project on my mind I want to do next.
  • One of the strength I seem to have is asking questions, and that way at least I could help. It can be pretty annoying, to also very useful, I could see the gaps in thinking, asking the details, figuring out where we are not good yet. Does that mean that I would be a better mentor or consultant than creator?
  • It’s fun to work with people I know and like, the team is very very important. Also important not to take anything personally, too much stress of the 54 hours drives people to the edge.
  • If I were to start a team outside of such events, I would probably do it with 2-3 people instead of 6-7, it’s easier to get on the same page. On the other hand, much fewer ideas as well, so it might not be a good call.
  • Would have to think how to replicate the pressure of a Startup Weekend outside of it. Amazing how much one can get done when he/she has to.

The guys were practicing a lot our pitch and here’s the result:

Also, there’s a rehearsal video, also good to see the progress (and the tension) people had before we went in.

The results of the finals

Advintage won – which is pretty much making me happy, because I predicted that. It helps that they had about 50x the revenue over the weekend (30 subscriptions at 2000NT) than any other team. They have won on the product, clearly. On the other hand, it also made me happy that I realized I still wouldn’t like to work for the guy. “Work for”, that was my impression, he wanted employees, instead of co-founders out of this weekend. Fair enough.

On the other hand, Drimmit came 2nd. We clearly won on presentation, the energy, the preparation, the polish (as much as you can get in a day) worked. We had the team to pull it off. I was very proud of them, and glad to help no matter how much. Also, the presentation worked since many other people keep asking whether we’ll continue working on it, because they’d like to use such a service.

It was a great time and let’s see where does it take us later. I was wrong enough times and right enough time this weekend to learn plenty.

Future

Among the most inspiring picture, though, came from another team, posting (literally) their first revenue, regardless of the value:

Another team posting 100TWD revenue at StartupWeekend Taipei
Another team posting their revenue (100TWD = 3.4USD = 2.1GBP)

Also, I’m thinking that next time I would try to pitch as well, been developing enough, now it’s time to see if I could sell my ideas to others, whether I can get them excited about something. You know, it’s not the ideator but the first follower that counts.

The rest of the pictures are in this album, click to see, CC-BY to reuse if liked.